Business Is Getting More Sustainable. Too Bad It’s Not Good Enough

A new report finds that a little more than half of companies are emitting too much carbon. But there are bright spots — and signs that sustainability can pair with economic growth

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Business still isn't sustainable enough to avert dangerous climate change

For all the political controversy in the U.S. over climate change — and the resulting gridlock — much of corporate America has been surprisingly farseeing on global warming, even if it’s not always something CEOs like to talk about. Earlier this month, the environmental-data company CDP reported that at least 29 companies — including oil and gas corporations like ExxonMobil that have financed climate skeptics in the past — have begun incorporating a price on carbon into their long-term plans. They know that climate change is real, and that any financially responsible corporation needs to prepare for a future in which carbon will be a regulated substance. Politicians — especially in Congress — may have the luxury of letting ideology trump facts, but CEOs who answer to shareholders don’t.

Still, thinking about climate change in the future is not the same as acting on it now. That’s the takeaway from a new report from the nonprofits Climate Counts and the Center for Sustainable Organizations that analyzed the climate sustainability of 100 of the largest companies in the world. According to a metric designed by the groups, 51 of the companies surveyed are emitting unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide. That means that they’re producing more than the share of carbon — as a part of their economic production — than can be allowed if the world is to keep warming to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels. (Many scientists — though not all — believe that 2°C is a level of warming that represents a red line for dangerous climate change.) While the study’s results mean that nearly half of the companies surveyed are on a sustainable track — led by the design company Autodesk and the consumer giant Unilver — that’s not good enough, not when 40% of the world’s biggest economic entities are corporations.

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There are other caveats: the study could only look at those companies that have chosen to release their carbon emissions publicly, going back to 2005. (The research covers 2005 to 2012.) Not every company has chosen to be open about what it emits. And the study covers only what you might think of as direct carbon emissions — the energy used in operations — and not the carbon that might be emitted indirectly through their supply chains or through the use of their products. That doesn’t take into account, say, the hot water that’s necessary to take a shower with Unilever’s Dove soap.

But the study does put carbon emissions in some kind of economic context, comparing the greenhouses a company produces with its overall contribution to GDP. In doing so, it demonstrates that a quarter of the companies surveyed were able to reduce emissions while growing economically. That’s key; no CEO is going to get away with cutting emissions if it means long-term economic decline. Or at least, no CEO who will stay in his or her job for very long.

You can see the whole report here.

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